Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011), a well-known atheist orator, had a moral challenge for Christians: identify a moral action taken or a moral sentiment uttered by a believer that couldn’t be taken or uttered by a nonbeliever—something that only a believer could do and an atheist couldn’t. He said that he had been given no credible answer.
Amy Hall from Stand to Reason (Greg Koukl’s ministry) thinks she is up to the challenge. Let’s take a look.
1. Hitchens misunderstands the theist’s point
[Hitchens thinks the Christian is saying] that without God, we couldn’t know right from wrong, when the actual objection is that there wouldn’t be any right or wrong
Where’s the problem? As I read Hitchens, he was responding to the assumption that being a Christian provided some moral advantage. (And, according to Christianity, it does: “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin” (1 John 5:18).)
And if you want to argue that morality exists only because God put it there, that needs some evidence. You’ve provided none (more on Christians’ inability to defend objective morality here).
2. The Challenge is unanswerable
This is a clever observation: if Hitchens the atheist is the judge of the Hitchens Challenge, the Christian can’t win because he decides what is moral.
There might be certain acts that only theists would recognize as being moral. Atheists, not recognizing those acts as being good, would not attempt to do them as moral acts.
The first problem is that this undercuts another popular Christian apologetic argument. What’s wrong with Hitchens as judge—don’t you say that morality is objective? If morality is objective (defined by apologist William Lane Craig as “moral values that are valid and binding whether anybody believes in them or not”) and we humans can reliably access those values, Hitchens or any honest atheist would be as good a judge as anyone.
Since it is logically impossible to give an answer that will satisfy Hitchens, he may as well ask us to draw him a square circle and then declare himself the winner when we fail. In the end, his challenge is nothing but a rhetorical trick, and it should be exposed and dismissed as such. Hitchens should never get away with even asking it, let alone demanding we give him an “acceptable” answer in order to defend theism.
The resolution is simple: insist that objective, unbiased third parties must judge this Challenge. Easy.
As it happens, there is an answer to Hitchens’s question—one that seemed obvious to me immediately—and it illustrates perfectly the problem with the challenge. The highest moral good a person can do is to worship the living, true, sovereign God—to love Him with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength. Not only will no atheist ever do this, no atheist can do this.
That’s the pinnacle of morality? It’s an odd definition of morality that has nothing to do with doing good to living beings, but I guess Christians can define their dogma as they choose. And that’s the point: this is dogma specific to Christians. Our objective, unbiased third party judges would reject this. (More on how praise applied to God makes no sense here.)
Now it looks like it’s you who’s playing the rhetorical trick.
Let’s return to the Challenge. Hitchens is simply saying that Christians can claim no moral high ground over atheists and that Christianity brings nothing moral to the table that wasn’t already part of social interaction. God pretends to generously gives morality to humans, but it was theirs all along, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers.
Concluded with one more Christian response in part 2.
He will have to beg my forgiveness.
— written on a wall in
Mauthausen concentration camp
Image from mari lezhava, CC license